May 68 to colour revolutions

The left has used the May 68 événements as evidence for a distorted concept of revolution, argues Mike Macnair. By doing so it has even endorsed ‘revolutions’ in the service of reaction. This is an edited version of a talk given to the May 27 London Communist Forum

It is, of course, 50 years since 1968, and May 68 has attracted a lot of anniversary coverage. Some of it is perhaps sanitised. For example, the London Review of Books of May 24 features on its front page a truncated version of the slogan, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, we will fight, we will win - London, Paris, Rome, Berlin” - dropping the reference to Ho Chi Minh. Events in Vietnam have made the full version a little less attractive in 2018. The story for this headline is a six-page interview with Tariq Ali - which is all about Tariq Ali and not very much about 1968.

I have myself already written two articles on 1968. The first, in 2008, covered the grand narrative of the Tet Offensive, the Prague Spring and May 68, and the way in which these events taken together produced a ‘charter for Pabloism’ - a particular variant of Trotskyism - and the more general features of the orientation of the Mandelite Trotskyists and the western soft Maoists.1 The second article, in 2013, was more specifically about the événements, and the sense in which standard left stories overstated the depth of the crisis. In 2008 Jack Conrad wrote a five-part series on the issues in this paper, which he has reprised in a recent supplement.2 So this talk will not be about the details. It will focus more on what has been assumed by the far left about the meaning of ‘revolution’ and its implications.

In some respects May 68 in France was very like a revolutionary crisis, but it lasted just over three weeks - it started on May 6 and was all over by May 30.3 On that day a million rightwingers turned out on the streets of Paris, and president Charles de Gaulle challenged the Parti Communiste Français and the trade unions with the threat of civil war, making it clear he was prepared for such an eventuality. He suggested the alternative of a general election and understandably they declined the first challenge (and went on to lose the general election).

May 68 had the symptoms of a revolutionary crisis in certain respects, in the sense that there was an enormous mobilisation, in that even soldiers in the army’s intelligence centre were themselves out on strike! There was panic among the elite, but this was incredibly short-lived. Compare this, on the one hand, with the ‘creeping May’ in Italy. This began in 1967 and went on for over several years, but nobody characterised it as a revolutionary crisis, although it certainly provoked real concerns about the stability of the Italian state. Or, on the other hand, with the period in between the defeat of Labour’s anti-union ‘In place of strife’ proposals in 1969, and the restabilisation of British politics under Harold Wilson in 1974-76 through a concordat with the union leadership. In 1974 there was talk about a possible coup within the state core.

More spectacular was the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76. There was a coup, an attempted counter-coup, general strikes, great instability with a succession of provisional governments, and the Catholic church turning out everyone it could under the banner of the Socialist Party! So by contrast the crisis in France was broad, but not deep - things restabilised very quickly indeed.

In my 2008 article I made the standard point that 1968 was also the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which graphically demonstrated that the United States’ ‘counterinsurgency’ strategy was not all it was made out to be. The US thought it had won in autumn 1967, but the Tet offensive - although in itself it was a defeat for the Vietcong - demonstrated that the US had not won at all. This was a crucial step on the road to an acute crisis of the American state and army, with the US eventually scuttling out of Saigon in 1975.

It was also the year of the ‘Prague spring’. This too helped provide the charter for Trotskyism, because the Prague spring was represented by the Trotskyists as part of the process of the political revolution. This imagined an underlying dynamic in the Soviet and related regimes towards the working class taking power. The Trotskyists believed that they were seeing the political revolution in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and then Poland in 1980-81, but by that time the notion that we were witnessing a political revolution was beginning to feel decidedly strained - it became clear fairly quickly to anyone prepared to read the US press that Solidarność, starting as a trade union, had become a Polish nationalist organisation basically animated by the Catholic church - something very different from a workers’ formation.

In reality Hungary 56 was like May 68, in the sense that the Trotskyists only saw the workers’ struggles, which lasted three or four weeks in the immediate aftermath of the second Soviet intervention - there had not previously been independent action of the working class. Once again it was a Hungarian nationalist movement closely associated with the Catholic church which appealed for aid from Nato (but did not get it - the Americans were not desperately keen on starting a third world war in 1956, especially after the French, British and Israeli intervention in Egypt of the same year).

Nonetheless, it is the case that there was not a prolonged mass struggle of the working class in Hungary 56. There was a student movement, followed by a succession of rightward-moving governments, which provoked the Soviet intervention. Only then was there working class resistance - actually led by social democrat and syndicalist militants, who were survivors from before the creation of the Hungarian Stalinist regime.

Richard Vinen has recently published a book - The Long 68: radical protest and its enemies.4 Reviewers have characterised Vinen as “balanced” on Vichy France, and “dispassionate” on Thatcher’s Britain, which are forms of code for the ‘Tory interpretation of history’,5 and Vinen’s book on 1968 displays the usual rhetorical techniques and assumptions of the Tory interpretation (the natural conservative majority, the illusory quality of internationalism, political action primarily animated by personal ambition, and so on). He almost makes the mass strikes disappear. In order to construct his narrative, Vinen has to artificially limit his description to the main industrial countries - he talks about the United States, France, Germany, Britain and Italy, but he does not discuss third-world countries at all, or Czechoslovakia, for example.

It was, however, an international moment, which helped shape the far left. It also helped shape the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain - communist parties generally were divided between what later became Eurocommunists, on the one hand, and ‘tankie’ supporters of Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, on the other. The point is that 1968, whatever it was, did reshape leftwing politics. I wrote more widely about that in my 2008 article.

Nevertheless, Vinen is certainly right that there was a “long 68” which began before 1968 and continued well afterwards. He focuses on that period, but comments in passing that: “No account of 1968 can ignore the late 1990s, when some 68ers - Joschka Fischer, Bill Clinton and Jack Straw - held high office.”6 This is a matter of considerable importance. Commenting on the 1962 Port Huron statement of the US Students for a Democratic Society, Walter A McDougall remarks:

The way out, SDS imagined, was through “the simultaneous creation of international rule-making and enforcement machinery beginning under the United Nations, and the gradual transfer of sovereignties - such as national armies and national determination of ‘international’ law - to such machinery”. Thus did SDS anticipate Bill Clinton’s Assertive Multilateralism and humanitarian intervention.7

68er Jack Straw similarly adopted his contemporary Robin Cook’s tag of an “ethical foreign policy” to justify Blairite interventionism ...8


My focus here is on a specific aspect of the lessons drawn from 1968: the question of ‘revolution’ and the idea of the ‘revolutionary left’. I posit an understanding of ‘revolution’: that it means the overthrow of a constitution, of a state order, which is broken up and replaced by a new state order. It is immaterial for that purpose whether this takes the form of masses on the barricades, the storming of the Bastille or equivalent events, or some other form.

In 1688, for example, the leaders of the bourgeoisie in England invited the Dutch to invade, which they did, and then the bourgeoisie organised a series of violent and tumultuous demonstrations alongside that invasion. There were full-scale civil wars in Scotland and Ireland, but without the Dutch invasion there would not have been a revolution.

The constitution was overthrown, the absolute monarchy was categorically defeated, the whole of the upper judiciary was sacked, the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice of King’s Bench died in jail awaiting trial, the Chief Justice of Common Pleas fled with his royal master to France ... Parliament now became the dominant form of government. The Bank of England was invented; there was a massive expansion of companies and finance and the emergence of the London stock market. That was a bourgeois revolution - the culminating element of the bourgeois revolution had already begun in the 1640s-50s (this also involved leaders of the parliamentary opposition, which in 1637-38 had asked the old enemy, the Scots, to invade and occupy northern England until the king was forced to summon parliament).

How revolution occurs is not the essence of the matter. The essence is whether the state order is overthrown, as it is in England in 1641-49 and again in 1688, as it is in France in 1789, 1830 and 1848, as it is in Germany in 1918 (in spite of the fact that this did not bring about the revolution that communists wanted to achieve). So a revolution does not have to take the form of street fighting, barricades, etc. If the state order is overthrown and new state forms apt to control by a rising class replace it, a rapid social and economic transition becomes possible. If the old state order is maintained, in contrast, the state will intervene against new economic experiments.

However, that is not the way the far left has tended to think about revolution and revolutionary strategy. The way it thinks about it is shaped by 1968 - in particular the events of May 68 in France - but it is also shaped by the experience of the much smaller far left in the period from 1948-49 through the cold war. It was shaped by the character of the cold war regime and ideology.

Cold war ideology, as it developed, was governed by the decision of the United States not to go for World War III. The Marshall Plan was originally designed in 1948 as a prelude to World War III. The expectation was that the east European countries would be included in Marshall aid and that US troops would then be able to move into eastern Europe as a preliminary to the overthrow of the Soviet Union. But it did not work out like that, basically because of the Chinese Revolution, which was a disaster as far as US strategic orientation was concerned. The US now had to develop a policy of containment of both the USSR and China.

That policy came with US support for rightwing leaders of trade unions and social democracy in western Europe, but also with US acceptance of a large degree of protectionism by European countries, by Japan, by the US client, South Korea, by Latin American countries - and therefore the acceptance also of a number of nationalistic military regimes - the USA in 1956 actually backed Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser against Britain, France and Israel. The US put a squeeze on British finance, which meant Britain was threatened with bankruptcy if it did not withdraw its troops from Egypt.9

The point is, the United States during the cold war period had adopted a policy of containment, as opposed to rollback. And during this period the official ideological orientation not only of the US, but also of the British, French and German establishment, etc, was based on the theory of convergence between east and west, driven by the common needs of modern industrial society - bureaucratic, technocratic regimes, utilitarianism, and so on. Social democratic governments were widely accepted, but equally nationalists like de Gaulle (and nationalist authoritarians in Latin America and the Middle East) were allowed a degree of autonomy.

Three lines

The ideological pressure on the left in this period came in the shape of gradualism. The argument was that any talk of working class immiseration under capitalism, and of revolution itself, was nonsense. The reality is, according to the argument, that capitalism is gradually being replaced by a form of technocratic, bureaucratic, managerialism.

The problem for the left was how to respond to this new official ideology. What do we mean by revolution? One response was that it is not happening now, but it is going to happen soon - there is going to be a crash. This was the line of the Workers Revolutionary Party and quite a lot of left groups. When the crash comes there will be a revolutionary crisis - our time will come.

The second line was to accept that, true, there may be no revolutions in the main capitalist countries, but they are happening in the third world. That was certainly the case. The Mandelites talked about the centrality of the colonial revolution. The Maoists talked about ‘surrounding the cities’ globally - meaning the metropolises. This was the image of the Chinese Revolution, where it was said the communists never won the cities except by force. (This was not quite true - communist cadre were extensively recruited from the urban working class.) ‘We took power in the countryside and then surrounded the cities. Now we can take power in the third world and surround the imperialist centres.’

The Soviet bloc actually had a not dissimilar line of argument. The capitalist camp was pitted against the socialist and anti-imperialist camp - the bloc of Soviet-style regimes and third-world countries. Upholding the socialist and anti-imperialist camp took priority over any (low) possibility of revolution in the imperialist countries.

In other words, forget the western working class, which is corrupt and can never be revolutionary. This was the policy of Michel Pablo and Juan Posadas in the Trotskyist movement - unlike Ernest Mandel, who agreed with the centrality of the colonial revolution, but also thought the working class in the advanced capitalist countries was going to come into action.

The third line was that the working class was unable to be radicalised as long as no strike action was taking place. The first part of Marx’s Capital says a great deal about commodity fetishism and the dull compulsion of everyday life. This meant that, while people were at work, they were not going to be won to revolutionary politics. That moment would arise when they were on strike, when they were taking action - it does not matter what demands are being raised: there could be “moderate demands”, according to Tony Cliff, so long as there was “militant action”. Mind you, Cliff believed that universal suffrage was a ‘moderate demand’ when it was raised by the Chartists, even though it was regarded by the establishment as utterly extremist.

This approach fitted fairly well with the fact that in Britain, after the Tory Party was elected in 1951, and attempted to hold down wages and conditions, the shop stewards movement gained strength. The top union bureaucrats were unable to control this ‘British disease’ of unofficial militancy. There were thus a lot of strikes over basic issues of wages and conditions.

The initial ideological response of the establishment was that this was a particularly British problem, arising because neither industrial management nor the unions and labour movement had been properly ‘modernised’. There were, indeed, elements of the left, such as the New Left Review, which seemed to go along with this diagnosis of British backwardness.

This became more and more implausible, however, when in the early 1960s the social compact broke down in Germany and there were ‘wildcat strikes’ - without an organised shop stewards movement, as in Britain - on a fairly large scale. Then in the mid-60s the same thing was happening in the United States as well. As soon as profits began to be squeezed, the employers acted against the working class, but workers fought back.

France was the last to go along this road - and it went there with a bang in May 68. Nowadays we think of the French republic as having a normal constitution, but following de Gaulle’s 1958 coup the regime was generally considered to be Bonapartist. It was certainly the case that it was much more repressive - the CRS riot squad, for instance, was used fairly extensively against trade unionists and demonstrators. Gaullism held down workers’ mobilisations, which meant that French capital was more profitable and growing faster than its German, British and US equivalents. Whereas now there is the ‘Chinese threat’ to western capital, then it was the ‘French threat’. But in 1968 the lid blew off the pressure cooker, thanks to the enormous wave of strikes. The Gaullist regime was forced to make vast concessions to workers in order to get them back to work.

The wave of wildcat strikes, and May 68, legitimised the idea that the dull compulsion of everyday life prevented workers organising for a radical alternative. This is a different point of view from the one which said that the workers in the west are corrupt and it is only in the third world that things will really happen. And it was also a different point of view from ‘Now is not our time, but the crash will come’.

But where did this line originate? Actually it is in essence that of the left communists in the 1920s. It is also present in an odd way in Lukács’s History and class-consciousness, which tries to make a link between that line of argument and very orthodox 1921 Leninism, as per the theses of the Third Congress of Comintern on party organisation. Behind the left’s and Lukács’s argument is the ‘mass strike’ tactic of the hard left wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany prior to 1914, and before that of Bakunin - he actually argued in favour of strike action being the precondition for radicalisation, against Marx.

Those who came up with this idea were inspired by workers’ action in Hungary in 1956 and by the general strike in Belgium in 1960-61. They translated Lukács and others into English and other languages and they made use of this idea in various forms - the essence of the idea being that revolutionary politics consists of getting people out of work and onto the streets. I remember being told by a supporter of the International Marxist Group majority that the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 represented revolutionary action on the part of the Ulster working class. After all, they were on strike, on the streets and even erecting barricades! But in fact they were stopping vehicles carrying Catholics, in pursuit of a sectarian, rightwing agenda.

The UWC strike was not widely enough discussed for it to be realised that there was a problem here; that mass strikes could be employed not only for leftwing, revolutionary purposes, but in support of the right. And, returning to May 68, the rebellion was brought to an end the day the right mobilised a million people on the streets in Paris. This outnumbered even the mass demonstrations organised by the left.

Human rights

But it is not just the revolutionary left which identifies a progressive movement purely by strikes and street action. Eventually, after 1968 and more clearly after 1975, the old cold war agenda of Weberian industrial modernisation was abandoned. John Rawls’ 1971 A theory of justice was a polemic against utilitarianism and favoured the primacy of political rights over economic equality, which he thought should be treated as substantially secondary. Then there is Robert Nozick’s 1974 Anarchy, state and utopia. Nozick had been a leftist as an undergraduate in the late 1950s, and Anarchy, state and utopia,which could be described as a rightwing anarchist book, aimed ‘small state’ arguments at the 60s generation, who might have favoured ‘commune’ experiments. Ronald Dworkin’s Taking rights seriously (1977) is another such work, this time of a more ‘American liberal’ style, like Rawls’ arguments, but produced at Oxford. Parallel to all these ideological products (and many more) was the ‘human rights’ offensive, which took off in particular after the American defeat in Vietnam.

The next president, Jimmy Carter, launched the US onto that offensive - ‘human rights promotion’ became very big indeed. It had been primarily a Catholic church operation in the 1940s, but it only became big very dramatically in the mid to late 70s. The US stopped backing military nationalist regimes and we saw ‘democratic transition’, in the first place in Latin America. This involved the creation of parliamentary forms, removing the military from government and, of course, those who ran the new ‘democratic forms’ were completely bought by the US. They went along with large-scale privatisation.

In the same period there was also a shift initially towards the idea of taking the Soviet bloc apart by exploiting national contradictions, whereby the US starts arranging large-scale private-sector loans to Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu, Hungary under János Kádár, Poland under Edward Gierek, for example. Commercial bank loans to Poland provided the background to the struggles which erupted in 1980-81. US strategic writers conceived of the future in terms of this process leading to a break-up of the eastern bloc along national lines. If the USSR were to intervene against the intended integration of eastern Europe into the west, this would then trigger World War III under the best conditions for the US - this was the way in which ‘rollback’ was thought of.

‘Rollback’ actually happened when top Soviet bureaucrats thought they were missing out on the goodies which Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia were getting by virtue of foreign investment on the basis of bank loans. If the USSR dumped the states it was subsidising, that would enable it to avoid US sanctions, get access to new technology and so on. Gorbachev and co then collapsed the whole system in a way which was totally unexpected.

But not everybody went along with this - it was only very recently that the Cubans gave up trying to hang on to a Soviet-style regime. North Korea actually went for marketisation in the 1990s, but this is not very visible, as the media keeps Korean market liberalisation out of view and the US continues to operate intense sanctions, which makes it very difficult for the various private trading companies to operate.10

Colour revolutions

In this context the US was not satisfied with the post-Soviet regimes: they were too close to continuity with the old regime. That was the background to the ‘colour revolutions’.11 In a sense France 1968 displayed the dramatics of a revolutionary crisis; but it was too short, too concentrated, too shallow to actually amount to a serious revolutionary crisis. And the colour revolutions were very similar - they did not really change state structure. They started in the late 1990s, and people who were thinking in 1960s terms, ‘Down with the man, down with the bureaucracy’, now seemed to have added ‘Long live the free market’. So let us have some strikes and demonstrations to overthrow those who are not ‘our friends’.

US commentators often ask, why have the colour revolutions failed? They failed because the new regimes are just as corrupt, just as kleptocratic, just as despicable as the immediate post-Soviet regimes. The only difference is that they are more friendly to the United States.

Then in 2011 there was Tunisia, which went through a genuine revolutionary crisis. The same probably does not apply to Egypt, although there was certainly a big mass movement. But then those encouraged by the National Endowment for Democracy and the various agencies it funds believe that mass forces will materialise out of nothing thanks to social media.

Of course, the Socialist Workers Party and others on the left also believe that if people come out on the streets the mass movement will materialise out of nothing, but in Egypt they found that the mass forces available on the ground were those of the Muslim Brotherhood. And if they do not want the Muslim Brotherhood and a Saudi-style regime, then they have to fall in behind the army - ‘Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.’

And in Syria they did find something worse.12 Once again there was hope in what was a mirage of a revolution, but it turned out that it was the Islamists who had the real forces on the ground. That was also true of Libya, although in that case it was even worse, because David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy had taken the initiative in encouraging the US to bomb the hell out of it, destroying much of its infrastructure and reducing it to a ‘failed state’. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty still thinks that this was a justified humanitarian intervention!

My point - from 1968 to the colour revolutions, to the present day - is that the far left, having lost any real sense of what a revolution is, came to the conclusion that if it was necessary to oppose gradualism that meant advocating ‘suddenism’. Revolution means - à la Bakunin - street action. The consequence is that when capital inverts its policy, which it did - ‘revolution’ is now something which the United States encourages, and as a result the far left is totally and utterly disorientated - the SWP was very clearly unable to give any useful advice to its co-thinkers in Egypt. The SWP milieu still clung to the illusion of the Syrian revolution long after reactionary Arab states had seized control of it. There was a split between the SWP itself on the Sunni side and Counterfire, being pro-Assad, on the Shia side.

Similarly with Ukraine, where the AWL’s Solidarity published a report of the efforts of the Ukrainian left, where they were being thrown out of the main square, beaten up, and so on, yet nonetheless believed that it was a genuine revolution.13

The idea of revolution which has been constructed on the basis of treating May 68 as exemplary - the 1905 of the late 20th century - has led to a complete inability to engage in long-term work. What the SWP and similar organisations continue to do is try to get more people on strike or out on the streets - it does not matter on what political basis. For then the possibility exists, they believe, of radicalisation. But the consequence is that the SWP’s members - who could be politicising the hundreds of thousands who have been drawn into politics thanks to Jeremy Corbyn - are not interested. They could be building unions, building cooperatives as long-term organisations, but they are only interested in demonstrations and strike, strike, strike.

As well as this hopeless domestic policy, there is also a worthless international policy. Failure to think seriously about revolution, instead merely glorifying the superficial phenomena of masses on the street, has resulted in an inability to distinguish real revolutionary crises from puppet-shows orchestrated by US-funded NGOs.

Marx and others argued, in founding the First International in 1864, that the working class needed to develop its own independent international policy. But the fetishism of mass actions as ‘revolutionary’ without regard to their purpose has produced an age-regression from this to the inarticulate infancy of the left.



1. ‘Removing the obstacle to thoughtWeekly Worker June 5 2008.

2.Weekly Worker May 1 and May 29 2008; and ‘Wonderful yet underperformed’, supplement Weekly Worker May 10 2018.

3. ‘Lessons of May 68Weekly Worker June 6 2013.

4. London 2018.

5. KO Morgan, review of The unfree French in The Independent June 8 2006; D Torrance, review of Thatcher’s Britain in The Scotsman May 7 2009. That Morgan is a Labour peer does not alter this judgment: Conservative Party political assumptions have been largely compulsory in the historical profession as such since the post-war canonisation of Herbert Butterfield’s 1931 The Whig interpretation of history.

6. Whether Bill Clinton was actually a 68er is debatable. See, for example, P Abbott, ‘A “long and winding road”: Bill Clinton and the 1960s’ Rhetoric and Public Affairs Vol 9, No1, 2006, pp1-20.

7. WA McDougall The tragedy of US foreign policy: how America’s civil religion betrayed the national interest Yale 2016.

8. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/uk_politics/2001/open_politics/foreign_policy/morality.stm.

9. DB Kunz The economic diplomacy of the Suez crisis Chapel Hill NC 1991.

10. See, for example, F Abt A capitalist in North Korea: my seven years in the hermit kingdom North Clarendon VT 2014 - probably ‘soft’ on the regime, but still a corrective to views of it as an unreformed central planning system.

11. Wikipedia’s ‘Colour revolution’ has a convenient list.

12. The FT could already see the writing on the wall in May 2013 - see R Khalaf and A Fielding-Smith, ‘How Qatar seized control of the Syrian revolution’ (May 17, 2013). But some on the left still could not in 2016. For example, A Smith, ‘Anti-imperialism and the Syrian revolution’ Counterpunch August 26 2016.

13. ‘The left and MaidanSolidarity April 23 2014; compare Paul Demarty’s ‘Economistic wishful thinkingWeekly Worker May 22 2014.